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5 May 2015

In Egypt, the left is struggling against apathy and fear

The death of Shaimaa al-Sabbagh sent shockwaves through Egypt’s left. Now, with elections postponed again, the movement is at an impasse.

By Ruth Michaelson

On the 24 January 2015, a protestor carrying a wreath was shot dead in central Cairo. The woman, Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, was a member of the Popular Socialist Alliance and a poet. The scene of her death, her body collapsing into the arms of a colleague before being carried desperately through the streets of downtown Cairo as they sought help, was extensively photographed and videoed. The wreath of white and pink blooms was intended to commemorate those who had died during the 2011 revolution. It never made it to Tahrir Square, its intended destination. 

Sabbagh’s death sent shockwaves through Egypt’s left, a loose collection of groups currently struggling against what analyst Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has called “an authoritarianism much nastier than that of the Mubarak era”. Seventeen eyewitnesses to Sabbagh’s death have been charged under an infamous 2013 law effectively banning street protests. This includes one woman, human rights lawyer Azza Soliman, who was having lunch in a cafe across the street when she saw Sabbagh get shot. 

Dunne was referring to the reign of General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi who seized power in June 2013 (he became president a year later), overthrowing the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi. Morsi himself came to power off the back of the 2011 revolution, which despite the Islamist win provided a rare moment in the sun for Egypt’s left. Gory footage of the murder of at least 800 Muslim Brotherhood protestors in Raba’a Adawiya Square in August 2013 sounded the death knell of the Brotherhood’s power. A year and a half later, the freeze-frame clips of Sabbagh’s body as her knees give way and she collapses have become symbolic of the state’s power over the country’s left. In Egypt, it is the state that decides who lives and who dies, politically and actually speaking. 

Egypt’s left is at an impasse, caught between the recovery from al-Sabbagh’s death and preparing for a parliamentary election that has been continually delayed since June 2014. While there is plenty of work to do when it comes to standing up against the government’s increasing crackdown on civil liberties, the risks of speaking out have never been higher. But it’s not fear that has a vice-like grip on the left as much as apathy, something that the remaining groups are trying desperately to fight. 

“Four of our members were imprisoned in January, the last one was set free a few days ago,” says Akram Ismail of the Bread and Freedom party. “Then we had two party members given five-year prison sentences in the Shura Council Case,” referring to the jailing of 21 activists who were arrested for protesting the 2013 law banning unauthorised protest. A string of high-profile court cases against dissenters since Sisi came to power, most-prominently the Shura Council case, have meant that most leftist activists spend more time trying to free their colleagues than they do thinking about political strategy. “Right now our capacity for work is focussed on campaigning to get these people free,” says Ismail. 

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“The activists are tired, the movement is tired. We’re taking a breath,” explains Shahir George of the Egypt Freedom Party. George is concerned that the focus is far too much “on short term goals”, weak coalitions and not long term strategy. Coalitions are especially important given that there are around a dozen small left-liberal, socialist, communist or social democratic parties, but each with limited membership – Bread and Freedom, for example, estimate that they have “around 600 members, of which 200 are active,” explains Ismail. 

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Boycotting is often the centre of the debate – the Democratic Alliance coalition, which included the larger Constitution Party, Bread and Freedom, Egypt Freedom plus others declared a boycott of the expected March 2015 election following al-Sabbagh’s death. The group issued a list of conditions, including a full investigation into the murder and repealing the protest law, which save for the removal of Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim in a March cabinet reshuffle, were not met. 

The expectation that leftist parties may use the few tools they have to express their dissent, but that the government feels equally free to ignore them entirely has fuelled apathy among Egyptian leftist youth. Nowhere focuses this more than the debate around whether or not to participate in elections at all, explains George. ”The younger generation don’t like participation but they dislike the alternative, whereas the older generation are the opposite,” he says. “But the pro-boycott movement always fail to offer solid argument of what we do otherwise. They only offer a broad stance,” he adds. Generally, older members tend to be pro-political participation, fearing that without it the left will be further alienated. “All our efforts in last to year to try and bring people back on board have failed. This could be because the only active people in politics are those who want to run for parliament,” says George. He pauses: “You know, this is the first time I’ve realised that.”

Whether or not to boycott creates tension not just within the weak coalitions, but between the parties and their membership. “We have to submit to our members otherwise we lose them. We can’t afford to lose numbers, as the parties are already so weak,” says George. Ismail agrees, saying: “If party can’t attract new leftist and young camps – then  it means we’re not doing anything.” But the ongoing groundswell of support for the government threatens to drown out the message of any potential boycott – Sisi’s electoral win of 97 per cent notwithstanding, his government still remains popular due to its promises of security, stability and economic growth. 

Then there is the dim prospect of what kind of parliament is actually likely to be formed, especially given that the government has both instituted a voting system designed to weaken political parties and has control over which parties can run – the Brotherhood are banned, but any party wishing to run must register, and be approved. Bread and Freedom, for example, say that they have faced difficulties in registering. The new voting system privileges individual candidates over parties, which risks both handing back power back to those who held seats during Mubarak’s thirty-year reign. The risk to leftist is groups is that it also encourages individual members from parties who choose to boycott to run as individuals, nullifying the support base for the party and undermining their message.

Looming over the entire process is the prospect that parliament will simply be a rubber-stamp to the decrees Sisi has been instituting on his own. “They’ve been coming out with laws for almost two years now without debate, and we can go on like this,” says Yehyah Gammal of the Constitution Party. 

George, Gammal and Ismail are all agreed that the real opportunity for leftist movements to grow will come from working at a local level, leaving aside the grand propositions of the 2011 revolution for smaller-scale projects. “We wanted to make a country but don’t know how to make a neighbourhood,” says George. Bread and Freedom has focused on slum housing, while George cites the success of stopping an overground metro in the Heliopolis district. “Local politics is where we can show success – of doing campaigns, then if it works, we can scale up. It keeps people in active mode,” explains George.

Local campaigns are also a way for leftist groups to win back the public support they lost due to the chaos after the 2011 revolution. “People trust the military as they see them doing stuff,” says Geroge. “But what have they seen from our groups? Knowing there’s something wrong is never enough. You need to be a replacement, a real alternative.”

This is crucial given that support for democracy has dropped in Egypt – a 2014 survey by the Pew centre found that 43 per cent ”think that a leader with a strong hand is the best way to deal with Egypt’s myriad challenges”. This means that leftist groups “don’t just need to demolish but we need to build”, as Gammal put it. ”The worst thing would be if the government does something stupid and there’s an uprising again,” says George, “as you need to be ready and organised. If there’s no organisation then we’re heading into chaos.”

For now, it looks like an election will be held in August, following the annual Eid celebrations. The investigation into al-Sabbagh’s death in tandem with the trial of its eyewitnesses drags slowly on into the hot Egyptian summer. The sleepy month of Ramadan that precedes Eid seems an unfortunate time to start campaigning. Al-Sabbagh’s body lays in the ground in Alexandria, and some of the left’s most prominent faces languish behind bars. Traces of blood-red stencils of al-Sabbagh’s silhouette are still visible next to where she was shot. The left is hoping that it will be able to regroup before the images have time to fade.